Christchurch lawyers are pressing for more Covid-19 safety measures to be enforced at the Christchurch Court House and have put their concerns to the Ministry of Justice.
The president of the Canterbury Criminal Bar Association, lawyer Nicki Hansen, said the chances of a major outbreak at the court was "ridiculously high".
Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann has issued a letter to members of the legal profession, answering some of the concerns.
The Canterbury Criminal Bar Association has exchanged letters and met with court officials to express its concerns about measures that it says are putting vulnerable members of the legal profession at risk.
Hansen warned: "Over the past two years we have already lost too many of our members to illness and injury. The grief remains fresh in our minds. We will not be forgiving if any of our members should suffer as a result of an outbreak at the court."
The Ministry confirmed that two District Court staff at the Christchurch Court House have now tested positive for Covid-19, but said no further details would be released for privacy reasons.
Hansen said going to court was "not like a visit to the supermarket" because so many of those attending were unvaccinated.
"Of the five clients I saw as duty lawyer over a two-day period, only one of them was vaccinated. My colleagues report similar figures. We have been advised by police that approximately 80 per cent of defendants held in the court cells are unvaccinated. The risk of a major outbreak occurring at the court is ridiculously high."
The lawyers want times for people called in to attend court to be staggered through the mornings, to prevent large crowds forming inside the building at courts and in areas where social distancing is difficult, such as the court office counter - the bail room.
They also want more court work done using video-link or VMR (Virtual Meeting Room) technology, though those facilities are limited. Hansen says that in cases where pre-trial callover appearances cannot be done remotely, remands should be allowed.
The lawyers want better checking at the doors, to ensure people have vaccination certificates, and people sent for tests if they are not vaccinated and still wish to enter.
Where unvaccinated people have to be let inside, Hansen says they want measures taken to ensure greater social distancing.
She said: "There are a number of areas within the court building that would allow for unvaccinated defendants to be seen by duty lawyers with a greater distance between them and in better-ventilated conditions, and without the need for them to mingle with the wider court population. Similarly, it is entirely feasible that a courtroom or other space be set aside for unvaccinated defendants to video-link or VMR into whichever courtroom they are supposed to be appearing in.
"The Christchurch District Court has both the technology and the space. The Ministry has a clear obligation to implement these measures under the Covid Protocol."
Chief Justice Winkelmann, in a letter replying to the legal profession's concerns, said the courts would continue to operate as scheduled, within the limitations imposed by the illness of staff and court participants. They would use remote technology when possible, and some courthouses may need to close from time to time.
"It is possible that the burden of infection in a region will be such that it is not feasible to conduct jury trials, but again those decisions will be made courthouse by courthouse," said the Chief Justice.
The rules about courthouse entry will continue, with participants needing a vaccine pass or a rapid antigen test. Those people required to attend, such as defendants, jurors, and witnesses, may enter without meeting those requirements.
Masks are required in the public areas, and recommended in the courtrooms, even when speaking, and ventilation arrangements are being audited.
Justice Winkelmann said: "Although this is a difficult time, it helps to remember that our courts are well placed to operate in a Covid environment. We have had almost two years of changing our operations to meet the needs of the moment. Most who are in our courthouses are fully vaccinated. We have access to good quality masks and improvements are being made to ventilation. Our ability to run remote courts and work remotely is well advanced."
The Ministry said the Christchurch District Court continued to follow the protocols issued by the Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu.
He said: "I recognise and acknowledge the importance of safeguarding our participants and staff, while also ensuring essential court business can continue in the event of Omicron transmission occurring in the court. The Ministry continues to follow public health advice to reduce spread of Covid-19 and to manage any confirmed cases that have come onsite.
"The Ministry has communicated with individuals concerned. In line with Ministry of Health guidelines, anyone who develops symptoms of Covid-19 or who is feeling unwell should remain at home and call Healthline on 0800 611 116, " he said.